“Believe. One God. Home is where we are going. Death is the first step.”
These are some of the intriguing phrases and ideologies players encounter in Animal Gods, a 2D action adventure game developed by independent studio Still Games. Comprised of only two people, Still Games reached for the stars to replicate a Legend of Zelda-inspired experience and simultaneously establish a unique identity. Ambition alone, however, was not enough to achieve this game’s potential for greatness.
Animal Gods’ first impression is quite impressive. My personal excitement for the opportunity to review this game was unbelievably high having viewed trailers and screenshots with an amazingly appealing air about them. Graphically speaking, Animal Gods has a minimalist’s touch to its elegant beauty. Both the world and its characters are comprised of simple shapes with a variety of sizes and colors. This visual style provides an ethereal sense of serenity from its modesty, proving that an elementary approach to art direction can be just as effective as elaborate art assets. When the camera zooms in, however, graphical flaws and symmetrical inconsistencies clash with the game’s geometric nature.
Beginning the game grants you control of the main character Thistle as she explores an unknown city. The name of the city (Sky Mirror) isn’t unveiled until the end of the game, attributing to a sense of perpetual confusion throughout the adventure as players continue to encounter pieces to a puzzle that never seem to craft a whole picture.
Thistle herself has little to no character progression. The game informs players that her goal is to destroy the three gods, but who Thistle is and why this journey means anything to her is absent information. Sky Mirror is a lonely place with only the discovery of other character’s diary and journal entries to keep Thistle company.
Two characters, Jessuh and Juliette, have a complicated romantic relationship that is unveiled if players spend the time to find the pieces to their backstory. A third character, Scientist Sven, is found to exist in addition to the aforementioned lovers. He provides players with vague information about an experiment that is (or was) underway. The game’s cryptic dialogue tends to impede effective communication, preventing players from ever completely understanding the events that have transpired in the city.
These logs can be found when Thistle steps on a circle on the ground. The use of circular designs in the game’s environments, however, can make journal entries difficult to recognize. It’s hard to tell a diary apart from a teleportation station, or a checkpoint from a…well, just a circular image on the ground. That being said, most disorientation in the game is quickly subverted by the game’s overall artistic effect. Animal Gods maintains soothing visuals throughout its entirety, with only a few noticeable invisible walls and bewildering designs.
Players are thrown into an environment with a respectable level of autonomy that allows the game’s dungeons to be completed in any order. There are three gods for Thistle to conquer, each with their own item players must utilize to defeat them. Controls in the dungeons are precise and clean with no lag in response time; this grants players the first semblance of control in such a turbulent world.
There are three items players will discover through their playthrough: the cloak, the sword, and the bow. While the latter two are self-explanatory (close and long-ranged attacks), the cloak allows players to teleport a certain distance. This adds a layer to platforming in a two dimensional world and forces players to use a combination of patience and timing to complete the trials that lay before them. Personally speaking, I was most excited when I had found the cloak with the hopes of being able to traverse the world outside at a faster pace.
Unfortunately, after completing a dungeon and being teleported back to the main world, the game removes the ability to use the very piece of equipment players just learned to utilize. The removal of these mechanics prohibits any sense of satisfaction after having killed a god – an idea that has a lot of weight. When translated in-game, it means Thistle must run around and simply not die from the game’s obstacles until she steps on enough circles to trigger a cutscene. The biggest threat in this game is the player’s own improper use of the presented mechanics.
Besides the cloak’s convenient teleportation, however, there is no use for any of these items outside of the dungeon that contains them. Enemies do not exist in the overworld; therefore, a sword and a bow are not necessitated. This ultimately exacerbates both the lack of danger and the loneliness players feel while playing. Whether or not this was intended is unclear, but Animal Gods feels like less of an adventure and more like a visual short story (read: short) as Thistle’s journey continues.
Animal Gods shines in the outerworld as it combines the game’s calming aesthetic with an ambient, soothing soundtrack. Nearly meditative in nature, the compositions are comprised of mostly atmospheric notes that dwindle and linger. As far as tag team efforts go, this blending of visual and audio idiosyncrasies makes up most of Animal Gods‘ personality in the best way.
Coming in at two or three hours worth of gameplay, Animal Gods didn’t start to feel complete until the fourth (and last) dungeon. All three items you’ve already learned how to use are finally available to Thistle simultaneously; however, players will have to come across each item (again) individually. By the time each of Animal Gods‘ mechanics started combining to the point of not feeling like a tutorial, the credits were rolling.
Conceptually astounding with a remarkable opportunity for storytelling, Animal Gods falls short on one too many fronts to be worth the price. With this game’s release, Still Games has exhibited an incredible amount of potential in game design and direction with such such a small team.
Though my personal expectations may have been set too high, Animal Gods was worth playing through if only just to see how much Still Games will be capable of in the future. A unique, interesting vision for a video game is arguably among the most difficult aspects in game design, and their vision for this title was immaculate.
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